Urgent action call for courts as COVID safety fears grow

Solicitors’ leaders today called for urgent action including a possible two week pause of non-custodial Crown and magistrates’ court work amid escalating safety concerns.

The Law Society of England and Wales today wrote to HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the senior presiding judge, outlining fears about the safety of members and other court users, in light of the new more transmittable coronavirus variant.*

“Throughout the pandemic the Law Society has maintained that it is essential for justice to continue to be delivered,” said Law Society of England and Wales president David Greene.

“However, the safety of both court users and those who work within the justice system is of the utmost importance, especially given the new more easily transmissible coronavirus variant.

“Since the third national lockdown was announced we have received a significant amount of feedback from our members expressing serious concerns about the safety of court buildings, despite assurances from HMCTS that they are COVID-secure for the new variant.

“To date we have welcomed the steps the government has taken to make court and tribunal buildings as safe as possible, however government figures showing a record daily reported 1,564 new fatalities and 47,525 new infections cannot be ignored. By its nature, unless remotely accessed, the court process throws people together in limited space.**

“Due to the rapid acceleration of transmission and the ever-increasing pressures on the NHS, we are now in a position where urgent action within the courts must be taken in order to ensure safety and to assist in the process of stemming the rate of infections and in ensuring that the NHS does not become overwhelmed.”

The Law Society has suggested that:

  • there should be a pause of all Crown Court and magistrates’ court non-custody work, of two weeks, for all stakeholders in the court process to assure themselves of the safety of attendance and to discuss local measures to ensure safety
  • subject to that there should be a move to video by default in all Crown Courts and magistrates’ courts

“We recognise that this conflicts with the imperative to mitigate the growing backlog of cases in the courts,” added David Greene.

“However, if the current situation continues, there is almost certain to be a significant loss of capacity due to court closures following outbreaks of Coronavirus, and due to staff, lawyers, judiciary and parties falling sick.

“We believe the measures we propose represent the least bad option for ensuring that courts can continue to operate safely.

“In light of the need to minimise court attendance, a priority must be the resolution of problems arising from the police withdrawal from facilitating virtual remand hearings, with the necessary funding provided to allow such hearings to continue.”

Notes to editors

*See a breakdown of confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff, judiciary, users and jurors at courts between 24 November 2020 and 11 January 2021

** Government figures from Wednesday 13 January.

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